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One of the great things about owning a dog is knowing they are always by your side. And now, researchers are developing a monitoring system, worn on dogs' collars, that has the potential to provide a view into the health of elderly owners.
The researchers, from Newcastle University in the UK, say that monitoring a dog's behavior and mood could serve as an early warning that an elderly owner's health is declining.
To set a benchmark level for remotely monitoring dogs, Dr. Cassim Ladha and his co-authors, PhD student Nils Hammerla and undergraduate Emma Hughes, mapped the behavior of healthy, happy dogs. By doing so, they could identify behavior changes that might indicate illness or boredom.
Dr. Ladha explains that much of their research focuses on creating "intelligent systems that can help older people to live independently for longer."
"But developing a system that reassures family and carers that an older relative is well without intruding on that individual's privacy is difficult. This is just the first step, but the idea behind this research is that it would allow us to discreetly support people without the need for cameras."
The team developed a waterproof dog collar containing an accelerometer that collects data for 13 different dog breeds, ranging from a small dachshund to a large Great Dane.
"This had to work for all dogs," Dr. Ladha says, "so the challenge was to map distinct behaviors that correlated whether the collar was being worn by a square-shouldered bulldog or a tiny chihuahua."
Though the end goal is to be able to monitor the dogs - and therefore the owners - without obtrusive cameras, Dr. Ladha explains that in their initial experiments, they set up cameras along with the collars to determine whether the sensors were accurately recording behavior.
Using two datasets, the team was able to map 17 distinct dog activities, which included barking, chewing, drinking, laying, shivering and sniffing.
With approximately 70% accuracy, the sensors recognized these activities, which the team says are linked to behavior traits that are indicative of a dog's wellbeing.
PhD student Nils Hammerla explains how monitoring these activities has the potential to gain insight into the health of an owner:
"A dog's physical and emotional dependence on their owner means that their wellbeing is likely to reflect that of their owner, and any changes such as the dog being walked less often, perhaps not being fed regularly, or simply demonstrating 'unhappy' behavior could be an early indicator for families that an older relative needs help."
The researchers note that the collar system is currently capable of recording data for up to 30 days.
Because most of a dog's activities involve its head - for example, directly for barking, chewing or drinking, and for balancing full-body movements like walking, running or shaking - the team chose the collar as the best location for the sensor.
According to the Humane Society, 47% of households in the US own at least one dog, totaling 83.3 million dogs owned.
As such, Hammerla says this kind of monitoring system provides the opportunity for "man's best friend" to be used "as a discreet health barometer." He adds that "this new technology means dogs are supporting their older owners to live independently in even more ways than they already do."
When asked what steps still need to be taken for this system to go from theory to practice, Dr. Ladha told Medical News Today:
"The validation study we completed proves we can, with certainty, detect animal behavior.
From a technology standpoint, there are a few 'infrastructure' details we need to work out. For instance, who listens to the alerts, how are they delivered and how can the recipient respond (especially if they are a distance away)?"
He said that he and his team already have some ideas about how to work out these details.
In other news on the bond between dog and owner, Medical News Today recently reported that owners' yawns are contagious to dogs.
Written by Marie Ellis
Copyright: Medical News Today
Not to be reproduced without the permission of Medical News Today.
Dog’s Life: Wearable Activity Recognition for Dogs, Cassim Ladha, Nils Hammerla, Emma Hughs, Patrick Olivier, Thomas Plotz, Newcastle University, Culture Lab, School of Computing Science, ACM, September 2013.Newcastle University Release, accessed 11 October 2013.
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Ellis, Marie. "Dogs' behavior monitored for insight into owners' health." Medical News Today. MediLexicon, Intl., 12 Oct. 2013. Web.
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